06.05.2012 Uncategorized No Comments

Solutions Summit – University of Minnesota

For decades, environmentalists, economists, and scientists have identified an exhaustive list of problems in our unsustainable world that we are now experiencing firsthand: CO2 emissions, dramatic climate change, waning resources (food, water, energy), air and water pollution, over-consumption, and overpopulation. Clearly, we’re in crisis mode, and as the title suggests, the Solutions Summit at the University of Minnesota smartly focused on solutions for our unsustainable world.

A brilliant array of visionaries and world leaders briefly shared what keeps them awake at night and went straight to the solutions. Each speaker was as inspiring and engaging as the next. Topics reinforced the conference brochure that says “one-size-fits-all solutions are unlikely. The most robust and resilient solutions will be those that are co-created by diverse stakeholders through shared understanding, pooled resources, and joint action.” Speakers from industry, nonprofits, and academia touched on defining the new leverage points to changing behavioral systems; identifying where we can be most responsive to change; supply chain economics; the problem of scale; the need to engage in unlikely partnerships, i.e., the cross-disciplinary nature of sustainability; the need for marketing genius and the continuance of social marketing based on reputation; the next generation and its entrepreneurs; and the necessity of working around the federal government stalemate on the issue. Time permits my ability to share only conference highlights from a very inspiring day.

Brian Richter, river scientist and head of the Global Freshwater Program at the Nature Conservancy, focused on water scarcity and the difference between water withdrawals and water consumption. He said, “Some of all the water that we use goes back into the original freshwater source. Moreover, very little water is depleted from homes, businesses, manufacturing, or thermal electric production. Agriculture is the dominant water user at 92 percent, which has a direct impact on our food supply.” For example, last year’s drought in Texas had a devastating impact on the state’s economy. Texas lost $1 billion in agriculture production due to water depletion.

Richter sees the solutions in following three areas: 1) the role of governments and their ability to control how much water is allocated and to whom; 2) corporations: more than two-thirds of water is flowing through corporate supply chains; and 3) cities: they need affordable technology. Rapidly growing cities with watersheds that are being depleted need to come up with a new water supply. He added that there is great potential for urban-rural partnerships.

Andrew Hutson, of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said we are guided by science and economics and recommends unlikely partnerships to find practical and lasting solutions. “We need to change how we’re working with farmers, grocers, and restaurants to create market incentives—to have a different impact on the entire system,” he said. One problem he grapples with is: “How do we create a low carbohydrate, low nitrogen corn to lower fertilizer use?” Hutson cites the Mississippi River as a source of 70 percent of the nitrogen runoff from ground water that contributes to the hypoxic zone. EDF is in the beginning stages of thinking about agricultural retailers, crop advisers, and supply chains. “Scale is the biggest issue that we face. How do we get everyone in the same room to harness the issues?” He recommends developing close partnerships one-on-one with market leaders. “There’s a lot of work to do with farmers. Hopefully, it will bubble up to the national level. We all win if we move in this direction.”

Professor Kyo Suh of the Institute of GreenBio Science and Technology at Seoul National University in Korea, spoke about the global challenges of food shortage and high cost of resources. Suh says, “Korea is known for its electronics and automobile industries, but it’s a poor resource country that imports 100 percent.” The key Korean solutions consist of a well-educated workforce, big business, and exports. He’s happy to report that food waste recycling in Korea is at 94 percent, as opposed to 3 percent in the U.S. He looks to the Korean government for solutions, which currently guarantees the price of rice, up to 85 percent of the target price.

Elizabeth Wilson, associate professor of energy and environmental policy and law at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, talked about the need to remove 80 percent of CO2 to stabilize the atmosphere. She also spoke about the interrelationship of energy and water: energy affects water and vice versa. Her solutions include exploring new networks, conducting feasibility studies, and commercialization. She, too, advocates for unlikely partnerships and recommends the creation of synergies between academia, corporations, the federal government, and farms.

Nationally recognized organizational strategist Jason Pearson of TRUTHstudio presented an analysis of the Direct Environmental Impacts of Key Supply Chains and Upstream Environmental Impacts of Economic Demand. His solutions lie in the impacts in the eight supply chain areas he identifies, along with public education, government policy, and educational leadership. “Every little bit counts,” he says.

Akshay R. Rao, General Mills Chair in Marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, recommends focusing on the demand side of sustainability. “Demand will create production, which will create jobs. The federal government is a potential source of support, based on the premise of jobs.” Rao’s focus, of course, is on marketing. “How do we get people to do things without realizing it? What can we do to get consumers to change their behavior?” He recommends using incentives to change behaviors such as attaching a smiley face, or giving a pat on the back, which has been commercialized by the O Power Company. “Social media is based on a concept of reputations that are publicly visible so we can influence people. We need to use incentives toward reputation; we need to change the structure of the marketplace. The Recycle Bank provides rewards to curbside recyclers. We need to change the social norms; they are a powerful means of fostering pro-social behavior with relatively small economic costs. “It will require marketing genius to identify the consumer,” he said. “Sustainability needs to be tough, as opposed to gentle and soft, like the veneer of the green movement.” Rao recommends rethinking the basic populace, new government systems, and the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Environmentalist, serial entrepreneur, and widely acclaimed author Paul Hawken served as the keynote speaker. First he talked about his solar panel company, One Sun, Inc., followed by his philosophic and passionate perspective of the situation we’re in.

One Sun, Inc. focuses on ultra low-cost solar based on green chemistry and bio-mimicry. When Hawken and his partners formed the company, they didn’t want it to be involved with government subsidies. “It’s like looking for love in all the wrong places. Government moves too slow; it’s designed to move slow. We need rapid failure for rapid innovation,” he said. The solar panels his company makes are 90 percent recycled plastic (upcycling) from all parts of the world and is 100 percent recyclable. They make electricity as soon as the sun comes up. The energy return on energy invested (EROI) with solar is 5:1. One Sun’s EROI is 200:1.

Hawken believes that sustainability is a social movement about changing the way human beings relate to one another. “Environmentalism hasn’t failed. There’s only action. We teach by being, not by telling. We heal a system by connecting more of it to itself; pathology is about disconnection,” he says.

“Sustainability is not about fixing. You’re separate if you see things as components,” he says. “I prefer to think of sustainability as ‘regeneration,’ or ‘spiritual rebirth,’ according to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). You can’t think of it as a resource issue but as the complex relation between living systems. Our best thinking got us here. There’s enormous complexity between systems that’s not understood. We think nature’s out the window; it’s not true. We are a system as humans. We’re a community of organisms, both bacterial and viral …. Natural systems and organisms will always regenerate. Collectively, we’re an organism. That’s what we’re here to discover …. How do we create a world to respond to the assaults and insults? It’s not going to be okay. Is this happening to us or for us? There are 7 billion people and 2 billion to come. It is a gift to come here. Our purpose here is to benefit others, which is technical, social, and market based. We’re getting this fantastic hall pass from the Creator to change who we are, how we feel. We’re here for people we don’t know and we’ll never meet. That’s when we’re really alive.”

The conference was sponsored by the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. For more information, visit northstar.environment.umn.edu.


Comments are closed.